THE BLOG

Who's in Charge? Our Assumptions About Race and Gender

06/26/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

Every now and then, one of my close colleagues will observe that someone else at the college which I head -- perhaps a student -- is displaying behavior that not only is disrespectful but likely different than they would dare with a leader of a different identity. That may be.

Whenever I, an Asian American male, am tempted to point out the phenomenon, however, I remind myself that the notice likely would not have positive effect. Even people who proclaim their commitment to equality, perhaps especially such persons, themselves feel affronted when they are called on their prejudices. I am chastened by the futility of the effort.

Those who are confident there aren't any serious issues with bias anymore, at least not in America, make the move of accusing the accuser. They counter that anyone complaining about inequity is hypersensitive or politically correct, and, for that matter, self-interested. Their refutation is brilliant if reprehensible. They imply that to ask for equality is to be selfish.

I am prepared for this argument. While a contest of suffering has no winners, I realize that it is important to be discriminating about discrimination. I agree that it has degrees. My encounters with the insolence of the privileged persuades me that others experience worse, and if I am committed to principle then I ought to use my aggravation to illuminate what others face as problems more severe.

In service of this cause, I offer a series of true stories -- acknowledging that for almost all of us our understanding of complex social phenomenon comes down to our own anecdotes. I am the the chief executive officer of an institution of higher education if one pardons the inapt title from the corporate context. In that role, I travel to many conferences, meetings, receptions, and important occasions. On a busy day, I might meet a dozen people with whom I have meaningful interactions and shake the hands of many more in working the room: alumni, prospective students, professors elsewhere, and politicians of every persuasion.

Despite the introduction, the business card, and my own confidence, every now and then somebody disbelieves me that I am who I say I am. Their doubt is explicit; they ask, "Really?"

It used to happen more often when I was younger. (I was briefly the youngest person in the nation to hold the position I had, but that was long ago, and that perceived handicap took care of itself with time.) But it continues to occur. I suppose I should shrug it off.

Here's the rub. A few times -- not daily or weekly or even monthly, but enough times that even skepticism about any single incident is overcome by the apparent pattern -- a stranger has mistaken someone else as the person in charge.

But there is more to it than that. I am accompanied by a diverse range of people. In every instance, bar none, the assumption has been that a white male is the boss. It has never, literally not once, been the case that anyone presumed an African American, a woman, or needless to say an African American woman to be my superior.

The racial disadvantage for me is intermediate: whites are above Asian Americans, who in turn are above African Americans. The gender advantage favors me: men are above women. (My limited sojourns in Asia suggests to me that when Asians are receiving Americans, they also are surprised by Asian Americans who aren't immigrants, interpreters, or immigrants turned interpreters. To Asians, American means white.)

More than any resentment I might suppress, my sympathy must be extended to those who, it seems, rank even lower. The revelation of hierarchy makes me wonder how those who face constant microagression can stand it. I regret the indignities imposed upon my African American female friends. Their grievance is the greatest.

If confirmation were needed about how we assign people to their place, there is another standard script we act out. It depicts who belongs with whom. Checking into a hotel, sitting down to lunch, or walking down the street, two people in professional attire are co-workers, except when they are of the same race, opposite genders, and approximately the same age. When I am in the company of a gay white male, a white female, an African American female, or anyone other than an Asian American female, we are peers; an Asian American woman is a spouse, partner, or date.

Attorneys who are people of color or women report the same mix-up when they appear in court. They are not the advocate expert in law, but the defendant facing prison or the court reporter taking notes.

The challenge is that these actions likely have motivations other than malice. When they are exposed, it may be too much to hope for contrition though it might be appropriate to expect embarrassment. I am no better than anyone else. My aspiration is to be more aware so as to improve, and seeing the relative nature of abuse is quite beneficial.

We can make good on our ideals, but only through our own efforts.